The story of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the accompanying challenges has been in the news regularly for some time. My French-Canadian ancestors came across “détroit” (the straits) in the 1790s and generations of my family have been proud to call that city home—and when asked where I’m from, I still claim Detroit. I was fortunate to pursue my archival education at Wayne State University in the archival studies program led by Dr. Philip P. Mason. One of the great gifts for students at Wayne is the nearness of the Detroit Institute of Art, where we often would head on weekends or between classes to wander through the galleries. So I regularly read the articles about the bankruptcy, which included discussions of potentially selling off some or all of the astonishing collections of the DIA.
What does this have to do with archives? In a recent NY Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/08/arts/design/grand-bargain-saves-the-detroit-institute-of-arts.html?_r=1) a few sentences are tucked in that jump out to an archivist. DIA staff, anxious to prevent the attack on this incomparable art collection, went to their own institutional archives to see if there was any evidence that could help prevent possible sale. And yes, they hit pay dirt. Some of the most important pieces in the collection, such as Tintoretto’s “The Dreams of Men”, included agreements that restricted conditions of sale. At the very least, efforts to “monetize” the collection would have been tied up in the courts for years because of the archival evidence they found. Fortunately, this trump card did not have to be played because an alternative to funding the DIA was found. Nonetheless, the archives of the DIA was and will continue to be, a potent resource to protect and preserve this incredible art collection for the public.
So again, here is an example of why archives matter—but also evidence of how much that role is downplayed. One needs to read the article carefully to even realize the key role of archives in protecting the collection. That leaves me with two “to do” items to suggest to all of us.
First, when reading the news, look for the archival story behind the story—often it is glossed over, barely mentioned. Keep an eye out for the understated archival story, and when you find it, share the reference with me/SAA so we can add it to our growing resource to demonstrate how archives affect lives. Second, whenever you have the chance to speak with journalists about an historical event, a political issue, a person of interest, stress to them the importance of archives in providing the essential evidence. We need to be explicit, focused, and yes, we need to champion the role of archives. Advocacy begins with us.
As we approach the holiday season – replete with wishes of good cheer and year-end toasts, let’s take an opportunity to share the thoughts we all encounter that remind us of the value of archives.
Why do archives matter? This month’s challenge is simple: Think about the “quotable” statements you’ve heard or read – perhaps in a professional presentation, an archives class or workshop, a newspaper, magazine, or journal article, a novel or play. The statement may have been made by someone with international recognition, a local “everyday” person, one of your professors, or a friend. Whatever she or he wrote or said, it made you think, “Yes, that’s why archives are important, that’s why what I do matters….”
Share your quote with us—by tweeting #ArchivesQuotes or via email email@example.com. We’ll add it to the resources on which we can draw as we move forward in our efforts to raise awareness of and to advocate for archives. In this season of giving, let’s share with each other some insights about the value of archives.
- “…records are crucial to hold us accountable…They are a potent bulwark against human rights violations.”
‒Bishop Desmond Tutu
- “Without archives many stories of real people would be lost, and along with those stories, vital clues that allow us to reflect and interpret our lives today.”
- “Of all our national assets, Archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.”
‒Arthur G. Doughty, Dominion Archivist, 1904‒1935
- “As archivists appraise records, they are doing nothing less than determining what the future will know about its past: who will have continuing voice and who will be silenced.”
To view the challenge on the SAA website: http://www2.archivists.org/living-dangerously/archivesquotes
Go ahead – live dangerously for archives and encourage others to do the same!
Peter Gottlieb, Chair, SAA Committee on Public Awareness
This year, SAA President Kathleen Roe dared SAA members to take on a “Year of Living Dangerously for Archives”—to do something to take action to raise awareness of archives. On October 30, at the tail end of American Archives Month, the Committee on Public Awareness challenged members to do just that: We asked archivists to take to Twitter to respond to questions from the public that included the hashtag #AskAnArchivist. Continue reading
Let the cheering begin for the Council of State Archivists and its Electronic Records Day campaign on October 10, 2014 (10-10-14), and congratulations to all those who did their part in supporting this wonderful event. CoSA initiated this effort as part of American Archives Month four years ago, on the appropriately dated 10-10-10. SAA and other professional organizations have joined CoSA in the effort, and this year Electronic Records Day has really shown what archivists can do to raise awareness. Continue reading
In a recent OTR post Kathleen Roe emphasized the need to start gathering baseline data about ourselves, our repositories, and our collections. Not for their own sake, but to buttress our advocacy arguments. I am especially interested in collecting such information, and I would like to devote some serious energy towards compiling and evaluating the data we need to define, value, and promote our work.
It’s been over more than ten years since the A*CENSUS snapshot and we are in serious need of a refresh of those data. But at the same time I’m starting to wonder whether a repeat of that effort is the right way to proceed. If we simply gather a compendium of data about ourselves, who’s going to care? I’m concerned that a data set like that simply extends a self-referential conversation that has always gone on among ourselves and our closest allies.
But what if we were to turn the lens in another direction? What if, instead, we were to start asking questions about our users and their needs; how they use archives and for what purposes; and what changes in our public service model would help them achieve success? If we could make a data-informed case for public investment in archives based on expanding user success, then perhaps we will see people – funders, legislators, researchers, and employers — start to care. Funders, legislators, researchers, and employers.
I’m thinking we need to marry the the information that’s purely about us, with a very large helping of information that which is about use and users. It is those data that will ultimately define our public value and, therefore, substantiate our advocacy arguments.
So how do we start to gather this other data set? Who do we ask? What do we ask? How do we ask it? What existing data can we chew on? I believe we need to head in this direction, but I’m unsure how we turn the ship. I would greatly appreciate hearing your ideas.
Dennis Meissner, Vice-President/President Elect
Sometimes it takes a long time for information in archives to become accessible for a range of reasons. It may simply not have been examined, in other cases, age and condition have prevented our ability to literally see or hear the information. A sparkling New York colleague, Jean Green from Binghamton University, recently posted a link on her Facebook page to the following article about work at Yale University to reveal text on a map that is believed to have been used by Columbus in exploration leading to what are now called the Americas: http://www.wired.com/2014/09/martellus-map/
And that reminded me of another set of revelations thanks to technology lending insight on a question that those of you in my generation struggled with, what triggered the Ohio National Guard to shoot at Kent State students (a subject still raw for many of us). In 2010 technology brought forward more information:
More information on both of these stories, and countless others, will emerge as technology and work by archivists and researchers continues. If you know of examples of information finally emerging as archival records are treated or used, feel free to share it here. A good reminder after a long week (for me at least) of why we do what we do!
For all of you who’ve made the commitment to participate in the “The Year of Living Dangerously for Archives” and for those who are still wondering just what this is all about (see the 9/3/2104 blogpost here), the first challenge opportunity is now live on the SAA website: http://www2.archivists.org/living-dangerously/value-of-archives
You’ll find suggestions for concrete actions to take in the next days/weeks to further our efforts to raise awareness of the importance and value of archives and archivists. Check out the suggestions, put your own spin on them, try them out and then tell us the results of your efforts.
Challenges will be issued periodically in the future focusing on different issues, times, approaches, or for particular groups within SAA whether Student Chapters, Fellows, or any of our roundtables and sections. Do one, do many—every action is another step forward in raising awareness.
It is an absolute joy and privilege to be part of a profession that can change lives, alter the path of policy, affect the economy, capture the minds of students, promote insight and understanding, and provide the information infrastructure for democracy. It’s time we let others know that this is what archives and archivists do. Join us in taking action for archives!